Review by Tony Watts
The relationship of totalitarian regimes to the arts is malign, politicos wanting to neuter them, fearing freedom of expression as a direct threat to their control of the populace and its communal thought process. Censorship of work, persecution of its creators and campaigns branding it as degenerate are as common in contemporary dictatorships as they had been previously in the dark days of Nazi Germany. The cabaret scene in the Weimar Republic was anathema to the German reactionaries of the time, as Stefan Zweig observed: ‘amid the general collapse of values, a kind of insanity took hold of precisely those middle-class circles which had hitherto been unshakeable in their order.’ Young ladies proudly boasted that they were perverted; to be suspected of virginity at sixteen would have been considered a disgrace in every school in Berlin.’ A 1938 exhibition, Entartate Musik, was mounted by propagandist Hans Severus Ziegler to demonstrate how necessary it was to ban this music, describing it as ‘Un-German’ as it was Jazz-influenced and written by Jewish and black composers: ‘Effigies of wickedness’. It was in this atmosphere of repression that a body of work was created which is explored in a lively collaboration between English National Opera (ENO) and the Gate Theatre, currently enjoying a run at the tiny West London venue until June 9.
ENO artist Peter Brathwaite not only acted as the driving force behind this show, but heads the roster of performers alongside fellow singer Katie Bray, larger than life comedian Lucy McCormick (in her element in ‘Sex Appeal’ a Garbo parody) and the burly, bearded basso drag performance artist Le Gateau Chocolat. They are accompanied by a punchy trio led by musical director Phil Cornwell. The Gate’s artistic director Ellen McDougall devised the staging together with dramaturg Christopher Green. Ellan Parry’s designs utilise the small space cleverly helping to establish a close rapport between performers and audience, allowing for some amusing interaction between them. Running for only eighty five minutes this is a comparatively brief survey of the genre and uneven in quality, but taking in fascinating repertoire from composers as diverse as Weill, Eisler, Hollaender, Schoenberg and Spoliansky. In general it seemed to me that the performances, sung in English versions by Seiriol Davies, were full of vivid personality and spot-on stylistically.
Cabaret songs were a usefully subversive way of commenting on the political and social mores of the time and criticising the regime. Those included here cover a range of styles and topics dating from 1920 to 1939 and are sung in chronological order. Some, like ‘Best Girlfriends’, Spoliansky’s song of lesbianism, lost the power to shock they must have originally possessed, others still pack quite an emotional punch. Highlights include Weill’s ‘Mussel of Margate’ (from his satire on the oil industry ‘Konjunktur’), with its insistent chorus ‘Shell, Shell, Shell’: Eisler and Brecht’s ‘Paragraph 218 (Abortion is illegal) in which a pregnant girl seeks help from a callously uncaring medic and (most devastatingly) the same pair’s ‘The Ballad of Marie Saunders’ written in response to the punitive 1935 Nuremberg laws forbidding sexual relations between Jews and Aryans. Spoliansky’s ‘Tonight or Never’, richly sung by Le Gateau Chocolat is a heck of a lovely melody.
Effigies Of Wickedness makes for an enjoyable, if somewhat short, evening in the theatre and provides a stark warning as to how politicians will, in extremis, use music to serve their own perverted ends. Food for thought indeed!
Effigies of Wickedness is now showing at the Gate Theatre until 9 June, and is currently sold-out. But check for return tickets, every day, here at the English National Opera’s website.
Tony Watts is a keen opera, concert, theatre and ballet-goer. He has spent most of his working life in the music industry, including a 16-year spell at Decca Records. He has compiled and produced over 1,000 re-issues on CD, LP and digital formats, and written notes for several hundred more. In addition to writing for a wide variety of musical books and publications, Tony has worked as a music consultant on films and on exhibitions for the V&A. Follow Tony now on Twitter: